For over 30 years, the California Army and Air National Guard (ANG) have been using their helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft assets to fight wildland fires throughout the state. Another of the state’s ANG aircraft types has been playing a lesser known, but equally important firefighting role. The MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) has been providing real time video and fire mapping services to fire incident commanders for almost ten years.
“Our primary task during fires is providing a high-altitude overview for the incident commander (IC),” explained Lt Col Josh Assayag, Commanding Officer, 160th Attack Squadron, 163rd Attack Wing, located at March Air Reserve Base (ARB) in southern California. “We do that with the MQ-9 Reaper’s onboard camera system. We also provide fire mapping services to the IC. We use the onboard camera to trace the outline of the fire to create a map. This assists the IC to develop their strategy to fight the fire.”
The first time the unit was used for fire operations was in 2013 over the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in California. At the time, the Rim Fire was one the largest conflagrations in California’s history. The California Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES) was looking for an asset that could provide an overall view of the fire to the IC because of the rapid movement of the inferno. CAL OES reached out to the California ANG to see if they had an aircraft system that could fill this role. The 163rd Reconnaissance Wing (now the 163rd Attack Wing) was contacted to see if they could provide assistance.
Organization and necessary approvals took time
Since nothing like this had been attempted before with a military RPA unit, it took some time to organize and get the necessary approvals.
At the time, military RPAs were not approved for flight in civilian airspace so the federal Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the California ANG needed to work together to develop rules and guidelines for their use.
The 163rd worked with the FAA to obtain an emergency certificate of authorization (COA) to fly their RPAs in civilian Class A airspace (airspace above 18,000ft that requires continuous positive control by FAA control centers) to allow the RPAs to mix with manned civil aircraft. It took several days to work out a plan and get approval.
Once this was in place, they began flying missions and provided fire data to the IC. After the Rim Fire, a senior California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) official said never again would they fight another major fire without the 163rd’s RPAs.
Any time a military RPA is flying outside designated military operating areas (MOA) or at altitudes below 18,000ft, a manned aircraft is required to escort the RPA. This is provided by a civilian contractor with a single-engine light aircraft. So, for fire missions, the escort accompanies the RPA to a designated MOA, where it climbs above 18,000ft and can then proceed to the fire without the escort.
The crew of the RPA, a pilot and sensor operator, can communicate with the FAA control centers in the same way as a manned aircraft, maneuvering the RPA according to instructions from any aircraft traffic controller. The RPA crew can also hear all the other aircraft on the same air traffic control frequency.
“On each fire, we participate in a daily conference phone call of all the aviation assets that are assigned to fires to provide intelligence to the incident commanders,” stated Assayag. “This allows us to coordinate the best use of our RPAs, especially when several fires are burning at the same time. Typically, we provide one of our unit intelligence officers to CAL FIRE to act as a liaison between the fire agencies and the RPA crews.
"Over the years, we have been able to decrease the amount of time it takes to create these maps. We used to use the onboard camera to trace the perimeter of the fire using coordinates overlaid on a Google map. That was a fairly time-consuming process for very large fires. We have partnered with several agencies to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) into the software we use to create the fire maps. The AI takes the infrared (IR) image from the camera and automatically creates the fire map. It completes this process very rapidly. What used to take two to three hours for a large fire now can be done in three to five minutes.”
RPA can also provide other safety support functions for ground-based firefighters
In addition to fire mapping and real-time imagery, another role the RPA can fulfill is safety overwatch for firefighters on the ground. The 163rd has been involved in several search and rescue missions for firefighters. If the incident commanders lose contact with a firefighting team, they can ask the RPA to locate them and determine if they are in danger and need rescue. This is a task that can be accomplished in a matter of minutes.
With the increasing size and rapid spread of fires, several small towns and housing developments have been devastated in the past 10 years. The RPA crews can provide information on the speed, growth, and direction of the fire to the IC. The MQ-9 crews can also determine the safest escape routes for people who need to evacuate.
The unit has a very good relationship with the FAA. Over time, they have been able to prove to the FAA that they can operate their RPAs safely and reliably in civilian airspace. What used to take up to a week to obtain permission from the FAA to operate over a fire has now been reduced to a matter of hours. The unit have been able to develop a standard procedure with the them to obtain permission to operate in civil airspace.
The most commonly used sensor on the RPA fire missions is the IR camera. It is used for fire mapping as well as locating spot fires that might be moving ahead of the body of the fire. Real-time video can also be viewed by fire officials through logging into a secure internet site. The RPA can also downlink the video through line-of-sight devices at the command post or even handheld devices to fire crews who are actually fighting the fire.
“While there are manned aircraft that can provide IR capabilities over a fire, I see our big advantage is the large amount of time we can be on station with one RPA,” commented Assayag. “We can stay above a fire for 18 hours or longer by attaching external fuel tanks to the MQ-9. Because it is remotely piloted, we can cycle our crews in and out of the cockpit to reduce fatigue while the aircraft remains over the fire. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the maintenance and logistics personnel to continuous operations. It is much more than just the pilots and sensor operators.”
Lessons learned in tackling fires can be applicable to other disasters
Capabilities and lessons learned on fires can be translated to other disaster responses. The 163rd has responded to both flood and earthquake emergencies to provide aerial imagery to civil authorities for intelligence, reconnaissance, and damage assessment. For local responses to southern California, such as for a major earthquake, the operations, maintenance and logistics units of the 163rd Wing are preparing and training to work from austere environments away from their home base in case it is damaged.
With the precedents set by the 163rd Wing, other MQ-9 units around the US have mirrored their civil response capabilities and worked with their local FAA officials to enable disaster responses. Since the RPA is remotely operated, the 163rd can take control of an RPA from another unit and fly it from their cockpits using 163rd crews anywhere in the US. So, even if the other unit has no disaster response experience, training, or protocols, the 163rd can fly the other unit’s aircraft with their experienced crews. The maintenance and intelligence personnel have created protocols and methods on how to gather and disseminate the video and mapping capabilities of the RPA. The 163rd is also teaching other RPA units how to undertake these types of missions and offer such capabilities to their local and regional communities.
In 2020, the unit was very busy with multiple large fires in California. The 163rd put out a request for personnel from other ANG MQ-9 units to come to March ARB to assist. Assayag said they had a great response to the request as these other units were eager to learn how to operate in civil airspace and perform domestic civilian missions.
“In addition, we have been getting interest from the militaries of other nations that operate similar types of RPAs,” explained Assayag. “The Australians have been very interested in using RPAs for fire response due to the remoteness of much of their country. With an RPA like the MQ-9, they could launch from an airport far from a fire and still have a loiter capability of 18 to 20 hours over a fire for relaying real-time fire mapping and video imagery. They have sent crews to our unit here in the US to learn from us and we are actively looking at ways we can assist with developing their RPA fire response capabilities.”